Southwest Louisiana lawmakers discuss successful budget process

Published 8:00 pm Thursday, June 6, 2013

BATON ROUGE — Legislators from Southwest Louisiana agree the fiscal session that ended Thursday was historic because of the way the state budget was put together, and they believe the process sets a pattern for the annual sessions to come.

The $25 billion state budget that was adopted for the fiscal year beginning July 1 was fashioned by both the House and Senate with only minor input from Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Legislative veterans said they can’t remember that happening in recent political history. Governors have usually had their way in how state revenues are spent.

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House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said this year’s budget process was the most successful he has seen as a state lawmaker. He said the legislative body showed its independence this session, but added that keeping a working relationship with the Jindal administration is necessary.

“We talked about doing things the way we thought it should be done,” Kleckley said. “I’ve heard people who have been around for 30 years, and they have never seen what happened this year. I think we will continue to move forward in this direction.”

Kleckley said Louisiana has continued to be bipartisan when dealing with issues like the budget. He said term limits have not made the state become divided along party lines, a problem he said is plaguing some other states.

“We don’t want to have anything to do with Washington politics,” Kleckley said. “We want to do what’s best for the people of the state.”

Kleckley said his big problem with the budget is that he wanted to include more money for higher education.

Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, said this has been the most discussed and debated state budget he has seen during the 14 years he has served in both the House and Senate. He said it was done the way spending plans are supposed to be put together.

“It’s a good budget that protects higher education and health care,” he said. “And it was done with little or no one-time or contingency money.”

There is a good possibility the state can avoid mid-year budget cuts if there are no additional reductions from the federal government, Johns said. Medicaid cuts in the past have complicated budget planning, he said.

Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, said it was the first time legislative veterans can remember the Legislature crafting the budget from start to finish. He said it isn’t a perfect budget, but there is no good way to balance a budget without raising taxes or other revenues.

“I’m real proud of the House and Senate,” he said. “The House set the tone early and the Senate felt what it was doing was the right thing to do.”

Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, and a leader of the budget reform movement, said he was pleased with the passage of several pieces of budget reform legislation. He said those measures will prevent the use of one-time funds on recurring expenses and lessen the likelihood of mid-year cuts to state agencies.

“At the end of the day, what we came out of here with is a giant step in the right direction,” Geymann said.

A key reform measure, he said, was House Bill 437 by Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria. It requires the Revenue Estimating Conference to forecast both recurring and non-recurring revenues.

Another measure included House Concurrent Resolution 6 by Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, which lowers the expenditure limit from $15.7 billion to $12.9 billion. Geymann said this will ensure the government won’t grow faster than its personal income. The limit in the current fiscal year is $15.1 billion.

Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, said the House and Senate have worked hard to craft “the people’s budget” that was “constitutionally sound.”

Danahay said House lawmakers on both sides of the aisle worked together to create a budget everyone could agree with.

“You saw so many coalitions beginning to work together, whether it was the Republicans, Democrats, the Black Caucus or the ‘Fiscal Hawks,’” he said.

Geymann said he was pleased to have Gov. Bobby Jindal on board with the final budget, but his administration was largely absent during the negotiations.

“I think we certainly showed legislative independence in general,” he said. “The people that follow the process know where the work was done.”

Danahay said it was unusual that the Jindal administration took a “hands-off” approach to the budget.

“It allowed us to do some things that probably we would not have seen before had they been involved in it,” he said.

Geymann and Danahay both agreed that the session was non-eventful outside of the budget, with no other big issues gaining traction.

“The budget seemed to take center stage about halfway through the session,” Geymann said. “I thought the budget was going to be the biggest issue before we got here.”

Jindal did give the House a budget proposal back in February. However, it contained too much one-time and contingency money to satisfy lawmakers in the chamber where tax measures begin their trek through the Legislature.

The House removed some $500 million in funding that it believed couldn’t be counted on in future years, and replaced it with other expected revenues. The spending plan was then sent to the Senate where one-time funding was restored, House budget reductions were eliminated and millions of dollars were added to the budget.

Meanwhile, House members had been building a coalition of Republicans, Democrats and members of the Legislative Black Caucus that was determined to write a budget they felt could help avoid mid-year budget cuts to state agencies. The House voted unanimously to reject the Senate changes.

Work started behind the scenes to put together a budget both houses could support, and a compromise plan helped pass the state budget shortly before final adjournment.””

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley

Jim Beam / American Press